Like anyone given to binge-watching shows on streaming television, I recently tore through three seasons of Babylon Berlin, a Netflix series set in the ominous, waning years of Weimar Germany, just as the roaring, manic 1920s tumbled into the dismal 1930s. It’s the most expensive non-English TV drama ever filmed, with the first two seasons costing €40 million, most of it spent trying to replicate a city mostly bombed off the map nearly 70 years ago.
Germany’s Weimar Republic, for anyone still interested in history, is the previous century’s benchmark for social and political decadence, a state that failed, but not before showing the world what economic instability, rampant inflation and political corruption could do to a humiliated onetime industrial powerhouse left with little more than its national myths and considerable creative ferment.
Based on a series of detective novels, Babylon Berlinis ostensibly an interlocking series of murder mysteries set within the inexorable progress of a historical inevitability. The good guys are the idealists and the social adventurers who find a way to thrive amidst the chaos; the bad guys are the cynics and establishment types using that chaos to facilitate the insidious rise of the Nazis, who remain mostly offscreen until they arrive in their brownshirts in the third season.
It’s no surprise that it’s been praised for its “almost eerie parallels to the present” (Die Zeit) and “growing relevance to the present day” (Variety). We don’t agree on much nowadays, but if there is any consensus to be shared, it’s that we’re living in an age of dangerous political instability and decadence, though as usual nobody seems to be able to agree on the what, who and how of the situation.
Arriving almost like a public service, Ross Douthat’s new book The Decadent Society: How We Became Victims of Our Own Successwas recently published to try to explain the moment. Douthat is the tame conservative at the New York Times, and his role is mostly to pretend to be a sober voice – to explain to Timesreaders why people they don’t really know have such alarming opinions, and to suggest possible areas of common ground without scaring the children.
He begins in a familiar place, repeating the by-now venerable theory that America in particular and Western society in general began slipping into its decadent phase with the apex of the space program at the end of the ‘60s. Space, as Star Trektold us, was the final frontier, the one that opened up conveniently after the horrors of two world wars had put the United States of America in the driver’s seat of liberal democracy, and depleting our will to thrust into space the way the country had settled its western frontiers after barely two decades of rocket launches, orbits and moon landings has been demoralizing.
As Douthat describes it, decadence is the sticky, stained Popsicle stick we’re left holding after a period of prolonged technological and social progress has ended. We all remember how thrilling it was to see our lives transformed generation by generation, increasing prosperity while filling our houses with goods unimaginable to our grandparents.
But the progress has been ever more halting, our material circumstances mostly indistinguishable from those grandparents except for minor improvements in fit, finish and cut. The only really notable technological improvement is digital and virtual; to boil down Douthat’s analysis of the current malaise, our cell phones and smart TVs are the Popsicle stick.
Which, Douthat reflects, might not be entirely a bad thing. We can communicate faster, entertain ourselves more efficiently, and access a world of facts and experience to make up for growing income inequality, stagnating wages and productivity, and all the other fears and insecurities – real or imagined – that we either know or imagine beset us, now or in the near future.
Douthat’s book is a belated response, perhaps even an unofficial sequel, to a book published back when we thought we were living through a transformational time in history. Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Manwas published in 1992, and was received and then criticized as an ambitious, hasty, and even arrogant conceit. Perhaps because of its title alone, many people took Fukuyama’s thesis for a thickly-painted portrait of the zeitgeist and then later, when history seemed to return with a vengeance after the 9/11 attacks, as either premature or wholly incorrect.
Citing Fukuyama, though, Douthat points out just how prescient he was in describing not just the tentative decade that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall but the whole subsequent era, right up to the present. “The struggle for recognition,” Douthat quotes Fukuyama, “the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technological problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post-historical period, there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.”
Douthat asserts that not even Fukuyama imagined that this “end” of history was a full stop, and dared to suggest that “this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.”
Which brings us back to what, precisely, we mean when we describe a time – either in the past or the one we inhabit – as “decadent.” As portrayed in Babylon Berlin, the Weimar period as experienced in the capital cities was full of energy and creativity, even if a young woman would resort to prostitution as a side hustle to make ends meet in an economy in freefall. It’s hard not to imagine that some of the audience would love to experience the surplus of style and hedonism apparently available on the edge of the precipice, Nazis and all – much as a previous audience responded to the film Cabaretback in 1972, another story set in Weimar Berlin, released when a chaotic social moment had passed, leaving both its participants and spectators feeling mutually enervated.
But this might be a moment already passing. I’m writing this at the end of a week of semi-lockdown, socially isolated by choice as the coronavirus spreads worldwide. That digital and virtual technology – the Popsicle stick – has turned out to be the only lifeline keeping many people informed, amused, and connected. History has once again arrived with a crash, and we’re all wondering what the world will look like when either social pressure relents or government edict allows us to go out on the streets again. Is this a cure for our torpor, or a way of entrenching it further into the way we live? Whatever happens, it sure doesn’t look much like Weimar Berlin.